Signal Words

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI first start thinking about developing a lesson on “signals and signal words” (a few years ago) after reading a short Nonfiction text with some 5th grade English Language Learning students.  When I wanted to return to some of the new vocabulary that had been presented in the text, I realized that the students had missed all the signals the author included.  I supported those students back then, but the incident kept me thinking, “Perhaps we need to be presenting mini-lessons on this idea earlier.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo when a 3rd grade teacher asked me recently to model a whole class lesson that would support her students reading nonfiction text, I developed this lesson. I thought I’d share it with others in case you have some students who are running into similar difficulties.

I began with a picture of a lighthouse and asked the students to do a quick turn and talk to a partner, “What is in this picture and what is it for?” Of course, they identified the lighthouse and said its purpose was to send out signals or warnings to the sailors so that the ships wouldn’t come close to the rocky coastline. (You’ll see how I carried that metaphor through my lesson below.)

Next I made sure the students knew the difference between Fiction and Nonfiction (NF) and they all did.  I asked if they noticed that NF often had bolded words or vocabulary that was printed larger or italicized. Then I continued, “We read NF to learn stuff, right?  And the authors who write the NF articles and books WANT us to learn new things.  So they try to help us. When they put in new and difficult vocabulary words, they try to help you.  They are NOT trying to trick you.  They actually send YOU, the reader, signals.  Just like the lighthouse is sending a signal to say, ‘Hey, look over here, there is something you should notice so you stay safe’, the NF author is sending you another kind of signal. It’s like the author is saying, ‘Hey, look over here.  This is where I am telling you what the hard word means.'”

Because I believe in demonstrating my thinking first, I shared several NF passages with the students.  Here are a few I shared using the document camera so that the text was large enough for all to see.

Over 800 species or types of bats feast on pesky insects that damage crops or spread disease.

Because octopuses are invertebrates, meaning they don’t have backbones, they can squeeze themselves into small spaces between the rocks to get out of reach of their predators.

Female elephants spend their lives with mothers, sisters, and children.  They form tight-knit herds of 10-20 members.  The matriarch – the oldest female elephant – takes charge.

After my three models, I wanted to turn responsibility over to the students. They picked one passage (out of three more examples) to work on with a partner and we shared their thoughts.

You can probably see where this lesson is going.  We were creating a class chart in two columns.  Signals, such as, dashes, parentheses, commas, etc. and Signal Words, such as,  is called, that is, which means, this means, or, etc.

The final activity was for the students to try this skill on a one-page NF article about fennec foxes.  They could choose to work alone or with one other partner.  The article contained several bolded words.  I asked the students to write on the back of the paper, not only the meaning of the word, but the signal or signal word that the author used to help them. I circulated the room to see which students were successfully using the skill and which students might need more practice in a small group setting.

Feel free to thumb through the power point slides below.  I recently used these to present this lesson to a group of teachers.

Signal word slides


  1. This is a timely post for me – thank you! I am working with my Grade 2 reading group right now on what to do if we come across unknown vocabulary and I’m going to work these terms into upcoming lessons (signals, signal words) Our first day we brainstormed a list of strategies as we worked with a piece of text which included using the pictures as a reference, looking for smaller words in a new word, reading on in the sentence, visualizing, inferring, accessing background knowledge, etc. Students noticed that sometimes the author told us right away – as in it was further on in the sentence which means they were recognizing the signals. I will focus this week on more explicit instruction of these signal words so we can generate a list together. Thanks for such an informative post and thank you also in advance for letting me borrow your terminology to use with my students!

  2. Thanks for commenting, Carrie. I’m sure that that is NOT my terminology. I’ve always used those words, but I’m sure I got them from someone else a long time ago. Perhaps, Linda Hoyt, who writes great books with ideas on what to do to support students reading nonfiction.

  3. Pat – I just read a fantastic young adult novel by Aidan Chambers (Dying to Know You) where the two main characters have this very discussion – that our words and ideas become ours but originate usually somewhere else and from someone else. So I will rephrase – thanks for inspiring me to use these terms in my classroom with my students to help us talk about and make sense of text! 🙂

  4. LOVE starting this lesson with a picture of a lighthouse. LOVE co-constructing a chart with the students about the ‘signals’ they discovered. LOVE having one last text for them to practice with either by themselves or with a partner. And LOVE them writing both the meaning of the word and the signal they picked on the back, since I think writing seals things in our memories just a little bit more. I have to believe that all these pieces will really help students hold on to the learning. Thanks!

  5. Thanks Vicki! I am honored you took the time to comment. I’ve been learning so much from your blog recently — with all your great thinking about comprehension. If anyone is reading this and hasn’t yet checked out Vicki’s blog… it’s fabulous “To Make a Prairie”.

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  9. I did something similar with my fourth and fifth graders. I made a chart as a reference to use while reading until they could automatically discover the signal words or symbols on their own.
    In your post I would identify the following: because, first, after ( before), all (none, more, less, some,a few, etc.), but, numbers (1,2, 95%, etc.), so that, not, next, difference (similar, same), often (rarely, frequently). It not only caused them to slow down their reading of nonfiction, it also helped them to locate passages in response to questions during discussions or tests. Thanks for reminding me and expanding on the concept from your own experience.

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